Time is a Poor Teacher: The Limited Returns of “Years of Experience”

“Experience is the best teacher.” We know it to be true. So shouldn’t we be able to infer its corollary—that is, that those with more experience on the job will perform better than their less experienced colleagues? Most employers certainly seem to think so: Requirements for specific “years of experience” appear on almost every job description across industries—from entry-level positions to C-suite ones.


So what’s wrong with this popular belief? A meta-analysis of the findings of 81 separate studies conclusively demonstrated that years of experience is usually a poor predictor of long-term employee success.


How do we explain this discrepancy between the intuitive value of experience and its lack of correlation with on-the-job productivity?


Experience has unimpeachable value in many contexts. Onboarding is expensive and time consuming—all the more so for those taking on new hires with little experience in their field. Connections and professional networks can only be built over time. The same is true for some technical skills—especially in industries with high complexity (e.g., medicine or aviation).


But in most contexts the added value of previous time on the job is clearly limited—often to the first year of a hire. So when do “years of experience” go from a valuable metric to an impairment needlessly draining talent pools of potential hires?


One problem with the metric “years of experience” is it’s based on the premise that value is defined in terms of quantity (i.e., years) rather than quality (i.e., the candidate’s past performance value). Years of experience in this context stands in for skills, knowledge and leadership qualities—variables that are much harder to measure. The logic behind this conflation rests on the assumption that employees develop new skills on the job at roughly the same rate. But we know that to be false. Many employees stagnate in their professional progress for decades. Others are curious, driven to learn new skills and innovate on the job.


How do you distinguish top performers from category B from “experienced” underperformers from category A?


Atta Tarki argues in his Evidence-Based Recruiting that one way to get at an inexperienced candidate’s approach to tacking problems is to ask them situational questions like “what would you do if x problem arose?” (Rather than, “what have you done when x problem arose?”)


Experienced recruiters have developed evidence-based, structured interview rubrics to screen for skill, vision and drive. Similarly, these search experts help their clients deploy general aptitude tests to assess candidates’ competence and problem-solving capacity. Tests that assess skills pertinent to positions are similarly useful with the caveat that smart, driven people will learn quickly on the job.


So, to return to the old adage: Experience (as a proactive process of seeking out and acquiring new skills) is the best teacher. But people don’t just pick up skills by osmosis. That means we shouldn’t conflate skill accumulation with years on the job. Time isn’t the one teaching here.



Brendan Goldman is a Project Manager at ECA.



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